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Winter mental health amid Covid-19

African-Americans are at particular risk of burnout, depression and anxiety this winter

Winter is coming. With its shortened days and colder temperatures, the season is known to present numerous mental health challenges. This year, amid a global pandemic and socially distanced holidays, winter will prove to be even more challenging than normal, Northwestern Medicine psychiatrists are predicting. And African-Americans will likely be impacted the most. 

Dr. Aderonke Pederson, MD, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Inger Burnett-Zeigler, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, can speak to:

  • Mental health challenges they’ve treated during previous winters and how they are predicting those to be worse this year
  • The heightened risk for African-Americans’ mental health this winter
  • Feelings of isolation when facing socially distanced holidays
  • The importance of self-care during winter and the pandemic

Contact Kristin Samuelson at ksamuelson@northwestern.edu to set up a phone, e-mail or Zoom interview with the experts. 

Mental health challenges this winter

“The main challenges this winter will include caution fatigue, exhaustion from the prolonged anxiety from Covid-19, risk of depression and anxiety as stressors accumulate, uncertainty around vaccination and finding healthy and safe ways to have fun and spend time with family,” Pederson said. “We can expect to see changes in our sleep, appetite, anxiety and energy levels. In Chicago, we have already exceeded the number of suicides we had last year.” 

African-Americans will be more impacted

“The impact of these challenges on African-American households will be multiplied,” Pederson said. “Black people are more likely to have lost their jobs or be furloughed compared to white people during this pandemic, and more likely to have lost loved ones. Both economically and socially, with the ongoing pandemic of racism, the Black community is at particular risk of burnout, depression and anxiety with the ongoing racial trauma.” 

The holidays will be harder

“Winter time also comes with a number of holidays, and people might be experiencing grief related to loved ones they have lost due to Covid, or grief related to how they might typically celebrate the holidays,” Burnett-Zeigler said. 

“We are preparing for two of the most celebrated holidays during which we are used to spending time in large family and friend gatherings: Thanksgiving and Christmas. And we’ll have to decide how we celebrate these holidays without large gatherings,” Pederson said. “What might a Zoom Christmas look like? Unlike the summer where the outdoors provide a relatively safe haven (with masks on) for social distancing, the winter forces us indoors in closed spaces, a recipe for super spreading of the virus.”

Preparation and self-care

“This winter, it will be especially important to be proactive to protect our mental wellness by taking steps to find opportunities to connect, stay active, take advantage of the sunlight (even if it's cold!), and get creative in how we celebrate the holidays,” Burnett-Zeigler said.

“Ask your family and friends to form accountability groups, where you have a clear sense on how you will check in on each other, maybe even institute a buddy system, and give your support system permission to tell you if they see your mood changing,” Pederson said. “Be patient with yourself and those around you, everyone is under a great deal of stress. If you don't take care of yourself, you cannot care for others. Engage in activities that recharge you. Identify what feeds you emotionally. Whether journaling or exercising or dance videos, make a list and add them to your daily or weekly routine.”